The long lead up to the separation of the Ukrainian church

Andreja Bogdanovski December 25, 2018


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People attend the first liturgy since the creation of a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia in the Saint Michaelʼs Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev on December 16, 2018. On December 15, a historic council of Orthodox bishops in Kiev created a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia. The move followed a synod by Ukrainian priests in Kiev’s 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral which was snubbed by representatives of the Moscow-loyal branch. The council of bishops chose as the head of the new church 39-year-old Metropolitan Yepifaniy, whose secular name is Sergiy Dumenko. / AFP / Genya SAVILOV


The process of creating an independent Ukrainian church, removed from Russian influence has dominated recent news from eastern Europe. The decision of 15 December to elect the 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphany as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a newly formed body, is a momentous development. It marks the last stage in a process establishing an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by the leading figure in the Orthodox world and it is the culmination of many years of hard work of religious leaders and politicians.

In the last 30 years, Ukraine has experienced five presidents, open aggression from Russia and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The idea of an independent Ukrainian church persisted throughout these turbulent times and has become a reality in 2018.

The religious picture of Ukraine is complex. Since independence in 1991, there have been three religious structures competing for dominance over Ukraine’s religious life. The first is the Moscow Patriarchate, a Ukrainian church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox church, and which has the largest number of parishes in Ukraine. Due to its connection with the Russian Orthodox Church, it was widely recognised by the other Orthodox Churches. The smaller Kyiv Patriarchate (from which the newly appointed Metropolitan Epifaniy comes) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church have functioned as unrecognised churches since the 1990s. They have been the main instigators of a break with Russian influence and the establishment of a new independent unified church.


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 Believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate pray in front of the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine December 20, 2018. Reuters


On 11 October 2018, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul (historically known as Constantinople) and regarded in the worldwide Orthodox Church as the “first among equals”, decided in principle to proceed with the grant of autocephaly, in effect recognition of independence, to the Ukrainians.

He then abolished what he considered to be a temporary measure dating from 1686. In that year his predecessor, Dionysius IV, gave permission to the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv (head of an ecclesiastical province). The Ecumenical Patriarchate decided that the 1686 decision had come to an end due to a number of violations of its terms such as the non-recognition of the overarching authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch as well as the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church over the last 30 years, to address the church split in Ukraine. Given the silence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on this issue for over 300 years, the Russian Orthodox Church was taken by surprise.

In response, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to break all ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The result has therefore been a huge split in the Orthodox world and huge blow to Orthodox unity. There are about 150 million followers of the Russian Orthodox Church out of 300 million Orthodox adherents worldwide. Among other things, Russian Orthodox believers will no longer be able to take communion in the churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Its biggest effect will likely be felt in diaspora communities such as in the United States, where those baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church will not be able to take part of services or sacraments at a church that is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The annulment of the 1686 decision allowed the territory of Ukraine to be returned to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, until the Head of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine receives the tomos of autocephaly, a formal decree of independence, expected to take place on 6th of January 2019.

The idea for an independent Ukrainian church first emerged in 1921 during the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic but the religious oppression of the Soviet rule and the lack of recognition by the rest of the Orthodoxy meant the idea didn’t gain momentum until after Ukraine became independent in 1991.

In the first years of Ukraine’s independence after 1991, its ecclesiastical life was turbulent with frequent changes in the church structures. These include the Russian Orthodox Church charging Filaret with leading the Moscow Patriarchate into schism in 1992, a failed church unification attempt the same year and the appointment of Metropolitan Filaret as a Head of the Kyiv Patriarchate in 1995.

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 Newly elected Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Yepifaniy Sergiy Dumenko conducts the first liturgy of the new Ukrainian church in the Saint Michaelʼs Cathedral in Kiev on December 16, 2018. AFP


In the years after 1991, the Kyiv Patriarchate worked hard to secure an independent church driven by the country’s political independence. This coincided with the Ukrainian secular authorities showing an interest in the autocephaly project. As early as 1993, Ukraine’s first President, Leonid Kravchuk, sent a representative to discuss the possibility of autocephaly with the Ecumenical Patriarch. President Leonid Kuchma kept a more balanced approach towards the autocephaly question, while President Viktor Yushchenko worked hard for autocephaly and unification of all the Ukrainian churches, but with little result. With the election of the pro- Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in 2010, presidential support for an autocephalous church declined.

The proxy war with Russia in Ukraine’s east and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 revived the religious battle over autocephaly. The Moscow Patriarchate has often been portrayed as a mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has been criticized by the Ukrainian administration for its role regarding the war, with claims that it has sided with pro-Russian forces. President Petro Poroshenko has frequently described Russian interference in Ukraine’s religious life as a matter of hybrid warfare and portrayed the push for church independence as a national security question.

The Euromaidan protests at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, and the ensuing annexation of Crimea provided a valuable boost to President Poroshenko’s bid for church independence. The protests, which were triggered by the non-signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union, resulted in more than 100 deaths, with many more injured. Pro-Russian President Yanukovich fled the country in February 2014 and Mr Poroshenko won the following elections in the first round with his pro-EU narrative and the promise to reclaim Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine.

During Mr Poroshenko’s presidency, the question of church independence for Ukrainian believers gained in importance and became politicised. As President, Mr Poroshenko has used the entire state machinery to persuade the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to grant autocephaly.


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